Morocco has told the United Nations that 81 of its international civilian personnel and three African Union observers deployed with the UN mission to the disputed Western Sahara region, which is under Moroccan control, must leave, the UN said Thursday.
The announcement comes amid diplomatic fallout over comments made by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during a recent visit to a camp of refugees from Western Sahara in Algeria where he reportedly called Morocco's control of the disputed territory "occupation."
Ban called for a referendum to determine the region's fate, a move supported by the Polisario Front, which demands independence for Western Sahara.
Morocco rejected Ban's characterization, calling it "a legal absurdity and a serious political error," and condemned Ban for suggesting that a referendum was needed.
Morocco said that after Ban had failed to adequately clarify the situation, it was ordering the reduction in the civilian component - especially the political branch - of the UN mission to Western Sahara and was cutting 3 million dollars in voluntary funding.
Morocco gave three days for the international civilian staffers, including drivers, flight safety personnel, air-conditioning technicians and communications personnel, to leave the country, said Stephane Dujarric, Ban's spokesman.
"It really hits the mission across the board," he said.
"All of these measures would seriously impede the functioning of (the mission) and negatively impact on its ability to deliver its mandate."
Currently, there are 85 international staffers deployed with the mission. The reduction includes all three observers sent by the African Union.
Ahmed Bujari, the UN representative of the Polisario Front, warned that shutting down the UN mission, whose mandate is to prepare a referendum over Western Sahara, would lead to renewed hostilities.
"Morocco is proposing to put an end to the mission - that would mean the shortest way to the resumption of war," Bujari said.
"If there is no mission, there is vacuum and an invitation to a war."
He called on the UN Security Council to show support for the mission to bring parties back to the negotiating table.
The Security Council, which held consultations over the issue Thursday, "expressed serious concern," said Ismael Gaspar Martins, Angola's ambassador to the UN and current president of the council.
He noted council members will work with Morocco bilaterally to "stabilize" the situation.
"As individual members, I, myself, as president of the council, will engage with the authorities of Morocco to make sure that we see the situation evolving in a positive manner," Gaspar said, without specifying what outcome council members were seeking.
The UN has been unable to mediate a solution for the long-standing dispute over Western Sahara, which began in 1975 with Morocco's takeover of the region after Spain's withdrawal.
The call for a referendum by the Polisario Front, which is backed by Algeria, has been refused by Morocco, which favours autonomy instead.
A ceasefire, monitored by the UN, has been in effect since 1991.